” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”
One of the most interesting innovations in the evolution of democracy, is the concept of representative democracy: whereby a few are elected to make decisions on behalf of the population. The lower house of the Westminster System typically has representatives from electorates which are groups of people clustered in geographies that form a critical mass, whereas the upper house represents a different class: in England, a plutocracy but in America, it was revised to give each of the states an equal vote (though, in is still a plutocracy with just a more accountable way of election).
Overall, I think this is a good model to keep. But with the growth of the party system around the world (which has become the way government is done, a critical function that ironically not defined in most constitutions), it has become broken: using America as the case in point, the Republican control of the lower house during Obama’s first term (and Democrat control of the Senate) had politics get in the way and risked the future of the country at a time when unity was needed the most. As Jefferson said, when a government becomes destructive of the ends, it’s the right of the people to alter or abolish it. The party system is failing our democracy.
A lot has changed in the last 10 years, let alone 100 and 1000 years when a lot of our democratic tradition has been written. In particular, the Internet has become a new force in our society that has transformed every industry that comes in its way. It will only be a matter of time when the government gets its own shake up and that time may becoming. Gregory Ferenstein wrote an interesting post recently on innovations thanks to the Internet, with the most interesting one below:
They’re less fun than a boat full of drunken sailors, but more influential in Germany than many third parties are in the United States. After winning 15 parliamentary seats in Germany, the Pirate Party has developed an intriguing crowdsourced platform of decision-making known as “liquid feedback.” The trust-based voting system permits members to leave decision-making to those they know are more knowledgeable, while preserving the inclusiveness of direct democracy. The Pirate Party is currently expanding its ranks throughout the globe.
The liquid feedback platform may be the most powerful way to fix the current system of government. Imagine that we all have equal votes, but you trusted my views on the economy more than your own views — you could allocate your vote to me, where I could make it for you. Now let’s say I came to trust an economist on matters of policy, so I would allocate my vote, which includes yours, to that economist when she makes decisions (so in effect, her votes also counts on your and my vote). And so on: what we have here is representative democracy in it’s most beautiful form. It’s only now with the Internet can we allow a system like this to exist.
This is a system that could be built into the current governance of our society. And even better, it it doesn’t need to be written into the constitution, for it to have an impact: it could be done in parallel. A shadow government could emerge where people could nominate their votes to people who end up becoming super delegates on issues. The influence these delegates could be so powerful that it could trigger a vote of confidence on our elected leaders, not to mention additional accountability on their decisions as they are compared to a benchmark by the populace. Maybe even our elected representatives in the legislature could take inspiration for their decisions not by the party they are a part of, but by what the super delegates vote.
And perhaps, this could be the way we fix our democracy. Not by changing the system laid out by the constitution of great democracies in the world like America and Australia, but by changing the way our representatives organise their votes. No more liberal, labor, democrat and republican — but a liquid party, where the people who we elect into government under this banner promise to follow the direction of the population through the votes of the super delegates. Delegates determined by the liquid democracy platform that we all have access to anytime we want to vote on an issue.
I’ve been in America now two years (wow!) and one of the best things that’s happened to me since moving here is being involved in the Aussie community of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley (which actually is filled with New Zealander’s as well!). I don’t know all the Aussies, but the ones I do know have entirely justified the life-changing decision I made to move to America: the combined economic impact this group have had and will have in the next decade on the Australian, Kiwi and US economy really is amazing.
So it’s exciting to see one of my good friends and upcoming entrepreneur’s in the group Brett Welch strike it out on his own with his startup Veokami. Chris Hartley and Brett have built this funky piece of technology that aggregates all the video taken from a concert. For example, hundreds of people will record a show with their camera phones now and some upload it to youtube. Veokami synthesises all these videos and puts them in a timeline, so that it not only will organise the songs in a timeseries order, but will put them parallel to the timeline with videos shown from a different perspective. It’s like watching a TV recording of the concert, with you being able to switch camera angles…except the difference is, all this video is automatically organised and the video comes from hundreds of amateur footage shared by the Internet.
Check the video below for a sneak peak. And please vote for them on the hacklolla challenge as I’d love to see this service get integrated into concerts around the world, which further enables the power of the Internet and computing to transform our lives. It’s tools like this that put more power in the hands of the consumer and that alone is a reason why we should be supporting startups like this.
The potential of this technology really is interesting when you consider any public organisation of people — from political rallies to conferences to parties — the ubiquity of mobile camera’s now is unleashing a new collective intelligence in our world and Veokami helps stitch that intelligence together in a curated way.
Separately, I today received an email from a web service that I once signed up to but don’t use. The notice says my data has been compromised.
In this case, a partner of deviantART.COM had been shared information of users and it was compromised. Thankfully, I used one of my disposable email addresses so I will not be affected by the spammers. (I create unique email addresses for sites I don’t know or trust, so that I can shut them off if need be.)
But this once again raises the question: why did this happen? Or rather, how did we let this happen?
Delegated authentication and identity management
What was interesting about the Gawker incident was this comment that “if you logged in via Facebook Connect, in which case you’ll be safe.”
Why safe? For the simple reason that when you connect with Facebook Connect, your password details are not exchanged and used as a login. Instead, Facebook will authenticate you and notify the site of your identity. This is the basis of the OpenID innovation, and related to what I said nearly two years ago that it’s time to criminalise the password anti-pattern. You trust one company to store your identity, and you reuse your identity in other companies who provide value if they have access to your identity.
It’s scandals like this remind us for the need of data interoperability and building out the information value chain. I should be able to store certain data with certain companies; have certain companies access certains types of my data; and have the ability to control the usage of my data should I decide so. Gawker and deviantART don’t need my email: they need the ability to communicate with me. They are media companies wanting to market themselves, not technology companies that can innovate on how they protect my data. And they are especially not entitled for some things, like “sharing” data with a partner who I don’t know or can trust, and that subsequently puts me at risk.
Facebook connect is not perfect. But it’s a step in the right direction and we need to propel the thinking of OpenID and its cousin oAuth. That’s it, simple. (At least, until the next scandal.)
About two years ago, I got a whiff of a stupid policy by the newly elected government. So I wrote a letter to the Minister and complained. The Minister gave me a lame response six months later, and people in the industry didn’t think it was a big deal, like I did.
My intended impact was successful: a group of senators holding the balance of power responded to me. What followed as the Silicon Beach community discussed it (which is an informal grouping of Australian tech entrepreneurs) was an uproar, that spilled into the mainstream media. It rattled the government, and so it should have – that’s how democracy works.
The government went into hiding, and now 12 months later they’ve now announced compulsory filtering of the Internet, despite its questionable trials. I’m embarrassed by my nation as this entire process has been a farce, and disgusted at the ignorant, corrupt, and politicking occurring by this government. And the most frustrating thing? Its been two years and this government continues with their lies. As I said nine months ago, this is a cancer that will slowly kill the Internet.. And two years on, its been proven there is nothing we can do but just sit back and watch.
Facebook announced today that they became cash-flow positive in the last quarter. This is a big deal, and should be looked at in the broader context of the Internet’s development and the economy’s resurgence.
The difference between a start-up and a growth company
There are four stages in the life-cycle of a business: start-up, growth, maturity, and decline.
In tech, we tend to obsess over the “start-up” – a culture that idolises small, nimble teams innovating every day. Bu there is a natural consequence of getting better, bigger, and more dominant in a market – you become a big company. And big company’s can do a lot more (and less) than when they could as startup’s.
Without going too much into the difference between the cycles, it’s worth mentioning that a functional definition to differentiate a “startup” business from a “growth” business is its financial performance. Meaning, a startup can be one who has revenues and expenses – but the revenues don’t tend to cover the operating costs of a business. A growth business on the other hand, is experiencing the same craziness of a start-up – but is now self-supporting because its revenues can over its costs.
This makes a big difference in a company, lest of all longer term sustainability. When a business is cashflow negative, it risks going bankrupt and management’s attention can be distracted by attempts to raise money. But at least now with Facebook finally going cash-flow positive, it has one less thing to worry about and can now grow with a focus less on survival and more on dominance.
Looking at history
Several years after the Dot Com bubble, I remember reading an article by a switched on journalist. He was talking about the sudden growth of Google, and how Google could potentially bring the tech industry back from the ashes. He was right.
Google has created a lot of innovative products, but its existence has had two very important impacts on the Internet’s development.
First of all, there was adsense – a innovative new concept in advertising that millions of websites around the world could participate in. Google provided the web a new revenue model that has supported millions of content creators, utility providers, and marketplaces powered by the Internet.
Secondly, Google created a new exit model. Startup’s now had a new hungry acquisition machine, giving startups more opportunities to get funded as Venture Capitalists no longer relied on an IPO to make their money – which had now been effectively killed thanks to the over-engineered requirements of Sarbanes Oxley.
Why Facebook going cashflow positive is a big deal
Facebook is doing what Google did, and it’s money and innovation will drive the industry to a new level. Better still, its long been regarded that technology is what helps economies achieve growth again, and so the growth of Facebook will not only see a rebuilding of the web economy but also of the American one. The multiplier effect of Facebook funding the ecosystem will be huge.
And just like Google, Facebook will likely be pioneering a new breed of advertising network that benefits the entire Internet. And even if it fails in doing that, its cash will at least fund the next hype cycle of the web.
So mark this day as when the nuclear winter has ended – it’s spring time boys and girls. We my not have a word like Web2.0 to describe the current state of the Internets evolution, but whatever its called, that era has now begun.
Today, the Wall Street Journal published an article by a fund manager who suggested the Internet is now dead in terms of high growth. While I can respect the argument from the financial point of view (although he’s still wrong), it also shows how widespread and unsuspecting even the educated are for the transformation the Internet is preparing us. Yes, ladies and gentlemen – we ain’t seen nothing yet.
But I won’t get into the trends right now that are banging around my head, making me willing to change careers, country and life to position myself for the future opportunities. Let’s instead start with his core thesis:
The days of infinite margins, 1,000% productivity gains, and growth of market throughout the universe are long over. Internet companies now should be treated, at best, like utility companies that get bought at about 10 times earnings and sold at 13 times earnings. Even then, I’m not sure I would give the Internet sector the same respect as the monopoly-protected utility sector.
I am glad that was said, because this is more of a world-wide problem we have, that has lead us into the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The ridiculous false economy generated over decades of speculative growth – where fundamental asset values were supported by unreal cash – is something we need to stop. The best thing the GFC has taught us, is that valuations need to be supported by independent cash flows with markets not manipulated to inflate their true value. And I can’t wait to see the technology sector (who along with their partners in crime in banking and property) use some basic accounting skills, and come to the rude awakening that, in the real world, that’s how things roll.
Where he is wrong however, is in the innovation that is creating new ways of generating revenue. More importantly, what we are seeing is a stabilisation in technologies invented half a century ago. The Internet and hypertext (the web is an implementation of a hyptertext system) have all been in development for 50 years – and it’s only *now* that we are coming to grips with the change. So to say this is a fad that’s now over, is really ignoring the longer term trends occurring.
As identified in the article, the biotech market will be massive, but I was told by the head of the PwC Technology park Bo Parker in March 2009 that it’s only just resembling Information Technology in the 1970s. However, when in comes to information, things are ramping up for a lot more as the industry has had a lot more time to evolve.
Where do I see things going? Oh man, let’s get a beer and talk about it. Data portability, Semantic Web, VRM, Project Natal, the sixth sense, augmented reality – try that to get your imagination started. I call it the age of ubiquity: ubiqitous connectivity, ubiqitous computing, ubiqitous information – where we have those separate things accessible anywhere and everywhere and when combined will change our lives. Information and communications, after all, are a fundamental aspect of being human that underlie everything we do – and so its impact will be more broadly applicable, obvious, and transformative.
Where’s the money in that? Are you kidding me?! The question is not how many dollars these changes can generate, but how many new industries will they spawn. We seriously don’t know what’s about to hit us in the next two decades for information technology, and clearly, neither do the Fund Managers.
Below is a podcast I recorded two days ago on Tuesday 23 June 2009 around 1200 UTC. For your benefit, I’ve attempted to transcribe the conversation as best as possible.
[Time=00:00] Hi my name is Elias Bizannes and I have done a podcast with an Iranian, who has grown up and still lives in Iran, as a way of trying to create some clarity into the situation that we’re seeing currently in Iran. A bit of background ‚Äì in 2005 I went traveling around the world, and one of the countries I visited was Iran. I spent about ten days in this beautiful country – exploring it ‚Äì and I really got a unique insight into the place. Since I heard about the issues hearing about the issues in Iran, I reached out to some friends of mine, worried that they might have been hurt themselves. And I finally got a response ‚Äì and as I was hearing about the things that are happening, I thought it might be interesting to share that information to the rest of the world ‚Äì because there is a lot of speculation and I think people are misunderstanding a lot of the events that are happening. So hopefully this will give you a bit of insight. If you have any other questions,¬† or if you would like me to get some further clarity, feel free to contact me. You can visit my personal website eliasbizannes.com
[1:08] So let‚Äôs now tune into my friend, who‚Äôs identity can‚Äôt be revealed, sitting in Iran right now.
[1:17] Are there protests happening outside of Tehran? Is there widespread discontent with the population?
I‚Äôm not living in Tehran, I‚Äôm living in a centred city of Iran ‚ÄúKashan‚Äù. There are not big rallies here, and the protests here are not widespread. Y‚Äôknow people here are much rural people and living in villages. And y‚Äôknow¬† – people that are a low level of thinking, there not so much student, not so much talented and open-minded people here. Y‚Äôknow, they’re public people in here.¬† But inside of the university of Kashan – there are so – much rallies and protests against the government. And the first day after the election results, the boys and girls in here staged rallies and they canceled the exams ‚Äì even the exams that they are holding. And they took the papers from the students, and they canceled the whole exam. And it had a very tough reaction from the security of the university ‚Äì and I heard there were some security forces outside the university and they were determined to use tough action against the students if they stepped out of the university. And there were some protest continuing at the university for three days. People were wearing black clothes, in mourning of those youths killed in Tehran and Esfahan. And they find some candles‚Ä¶
[3:35] Are people being killed in Esfahan as well? Because what we are hearing¬†in the West, is that all the protests are happening in Tehran. Has there been a lot of‚Ä¶ Yeah yeah. I hear from a friend of mine in Esfahan that there were some rallies¬†at Esfahan university and there were some bombings in there. And they ‚Äì students I don‚Äôt know if students or some people else ‚Äì they fired the amphitheatre of Esfahan university of technology. There were broken windows and this situation there was so much much worse than here.¬† And the university of Esfahan is completely off these days. But, in my university, the exams are holding, but in the University of Tehran and the University of Esfahan, the exams are completely off.
[4:40] Yeah right. The situation is that everyone thinks the election was rigged. What makes people think it is. Has there been evidence or people just think it? Why do people think it has been rigged?
Well, y’know the majority of people that I confirmed, they don‚Äôt actually think that actually Mr Mousavihas actually won the election. They think that Mr Ahmadinejad has won, but not with the huge margin that they say. Y‚Äôknow, they want to rig the election because Mr Khatami won 21 million votes and they wanted to break his record by Mr Hashemi. They wanted to show people that Mr Ahmadinejad is more popular than him.¬† Y‚Äôknow, students and people ‚Äì they were saying that the people around them ‚Äì they were not seeing the villages ‚Äì y‚Äôknow inside the cities. They were thinking it was just themselves that were voting.¬† I think that Mr Ahmadinejad has won, but not with this huge margin. Maybe the election might be, is going to be next level, and Mr Ahmadinejad I don‚Äôt think he won the 50% plus one votes. Alright?
[6:24] Yeah ok. So from what I understand also is that people don‚Äôt want to completely overthrow the government and have another revolution.¬† They just want a better government.¬† Is that true? Yeah ‚Äì yeah, not concurring that this situation is 1979. The notion that the people don‚Äôt want a huge change in the system. The majority of people they do believe in the mullahcracy in Iran and the governing mullahs, they do believe in them and they do believe in the Ayatollah and¬†they do believe in the in the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic, which are the government of the clergy men ‚Äì Islamic clergymen. They just want their votes back, and they expected Mr Mousavi to change the situation Mr Ahmadinejad made in foreign affairs and in internal affairs they feel a huge mess, and I can see so much disappointment in the face of the people here because of this situation Mr Ahmadinejad has made. And they just wanted a change in the situation, changing the way in treating the world and the way in treating the people inside the country. They were tired of not being honest, tired of the legitimacy of the government, and they were tired of a government which is not straight forward to people and lying to people.¬† So I think people want big change – alright‚Ä¶
[8:22]‚Ä¶And what do people think of Musavi and his backer Rafsanjani.¬† What are the perceptions of the public to those people? Mr Mousavi is not a hero.¬† Of course, then he was not a hero, but now he‚Äôs a hero.¬† No ‚Äì he is a person which was so popular to Mr Khomeini and he was so close to him and one of the people who had a very huge role in the victory of the Islamic Republic. He‚Äôs someone inside the system, and he‚Äôs not come outside of the system to change it ‚Äì he‚Äôs one of them. Actually, before these protests people said he was one of them ‚Äì but when he showed so much courage and so much bravery in behaving and consulting in these situations in Tehran ‚Äì he didn‚Äôt push back and he didn‚Äôt take down the protesters ‚Äì and encouraged them to more and more protest.¬† They now think he is a very brave man; he‚Äôs not one of them ‚Äì he‚Äôs come to change the situation.
About Mr Rafsanjani ‚Äì I know, the people were not backing Mr Rafsanjani in his presidential period, which was for eight years.¬† And people hated him – and in the previous election, they think that anyone but Mr Rafsanjani¬†that was competing against Mr Ahmadinejad, he would have won the election. But because of Rafsanjani, Mr Ahmadinejad won, and whomever was in front of Ahmadinejad¬†was losing ‚Äì er, was winning the election but Mr Rafsanjani. But after that, people saw lots and lots of criticism from Mr Rafsanjani of Mr Ahmadinejad, they think he changed his behaviour, and when he supported Mr Mousavi ‚Äì I‚Äôm not saying¬†that people are now a fan or supporter of Mr Rafsanjani ‚Äì but people think that he‚Äôs changed. But, they hate him anyway right now, but not as much as before. His family ‚Äì people believe, there‚Äôs so much evidence about his families financial corruption in the country ‚Äì people are always talking about his daughter, his boys – and their corruption.
[12:10] So, what‚Äôs happening right now? What are you seeing around you? Are there people all over the streets, police that are restricting movements? Have they cut down the Internet? What are you seeing right now?
Around me, which are students of the university,¬† I can see so much disappointment in their faces about their future. Lots of my friends and lots of students here are determined to learn English, and send applications to foreign universities overseas, and apply to different universities to get out of this country. They say they cannot endure this situation anymore. Me neither can endure this situation here, and I am determined to leave this country. And some people that are stuck to the system, they remain here ‚Äì people that are not satisfied with the situation will leave the country. The intellectual people are among those who are not satisfied with the situation, and if these people leave the country, there will not be any more intellectual engineers, there are not more talented people in here, and I think it‚Äôs going to be a huge mess.
[13:55] What would people want to see though, to prevent this sort of drain of people leaving the country. What is it that people want to see to fix up Iran? Well first of all, they want their votes back. They do believe that the election was rigged. And they do want Mr Mousavi to take back their lives, their votes‚Ä¶first of all, they don‚Äôt want Mr Ahmadinejad anymore. As you can see in Facebook and other Internet communities that there are some causes,¬† people are saying that he should go – just go ‚Äì it is not important who should be our president, but it should not be him, should not be him‚Ä¶
[15:03] So if Ahmadinejad is taken out of government, would people be a lot happier?
You mean to crackdown this government?
Yeah ‚Äì do they just want different people elected? Is that the only change they want?
Um ‚Äì I think the majority of people want Mr Mousavi to become president. They do hope for a bright future and for positive changes in the country with Mr Mousavi ‚Äì I think they just want Mr Ahmadinejad to resign and to be taken out of Iran politics.
[16:06] Something I want to get clarified and that would be interesting¬† – things like Facebook, Twitter and all that ‚Äì have they been blocked by the government?
Yeah yeah, these whole websites are filtered. We can‚Äôt Facebook ‚Äì YouTube ‚Äì even I cannot access my Yahoo Messenger and mailbox Yahoo.com ‚Äì and the situation is very tough. Even some websites inside the country which had permission from the Islamic Republic like cloob.com which is a website inside the country ‚Äì they just don‚Äôt want the information to spread around the world. And with the pictures, they don‚Äôt want the world to see the violence. And some extremist websites and TV like we the voice of America, which are so extremist about pulling down this government.¬†They are scared of truth! What the BBC says, y‚Äôknow the BBC with no personal focus, just saying the truth ‚Äì they re sending so much noises on satellite. Given the BBC has gone down, its broadcast on Hotbird start broadcasting on Telstar and Eutelsat?
[18:05] How are people organizing the protests? Is it through SMS and telephone calls then, if all these important websites are blocked, to organise? The SMS was also cut down for about a week and a half. The mobile phones are ok, but not in Tehran. In Tehran, the whole telecommunications system was cut down and people were just using card phones, home phones ‚Äì and they were spreading the news just on the internet via Yahoo messenger, especially some blogs ‚Äì and people are using anti-censors and proxies to access the website and get the information about the place and the dates of the protests‚Ä¶but the SMS service was not on for a week and a half.
[19:26] What‚Äôs going to happen now?¬† What‚Äôs going to happen in the next few weeks? Do you think it‚Äôs going to be predictable, or do you think everything is unpredictable at the moment?
I think the protests have calmed down, and its not going to happen anything. And the tyranny of of Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Ahmadinejad, is growing up more and more ‚Äì and nothing is going to happen. But I think in the next few years, there is going to be more and more protests. And this government and this system, has not firm fundamentals and firm foundation anymore. People do not believe in the Ayatollah anymore‚Ä¶
(phonecall dropped out exactly at this point and podcast discussion ended)
In the half century since the Internet was created – and the 20 years that the web was invented – a lot has changed. More recently, we’ve seen the Dot Com bubble and the web2.0 craze drive new innovations forward. But as I’ve postulated before, those eras are now over. So what’s next?
Well, ubiquity of course.
Let’s work backwards with some questions to help you understand.
Why do we now need ubiquity, and what exactly that means, requires us to think of another two questions. The changes brought by the Internet are not one big hit, but a gradual evolution. For example, “Open” has existed since the first days of the Internet in culture: it wasn’t a web2.0 invention. But “openess” was recognised by the masses only in web2.0 as a new way of doing things. This “open” culture had profound consequences: it led to the mass socialisation around content, and recognition of the power that is social media.
As the Internet’s permeation in our society continues, it will generate externalities that affect us (and that are not predictable). But the core trend can be identifiable, which is what I hope to explain in this post. And by understanding this core trend, we can comfortably understand where things are heading.
So let’s look at these two questions:
1) What is the longer term trend, that things like “open” are a part of?
2) What are aspects of this trend yet to be fully developed?
The longer term trend
The explanation can be found into why the Internet and the web were created in the first place. The short answer: interoperability and connectivity. The long answer – keep reading.
Without going deep into the history, the reason why the Internet was created was so that it could connect computers. Computers were machines that enabled better computation (hence the name). As they had better storage and querying capacities than humans, they became the way the US government (and large corporations) would store information. Clusters of these computers would be created (called networks) – and the ARPANET was built as a way of building connections between these computers and networks by the US government. More specifically, in the event of a nuclear war and if one of these computing networks were eliminated – the decentralised design of the Internet would allow the US defense network to rebound easily (an important design decision to remember).
The web has a related but slightly different reason for its creation. Hypertext was conceptualised in the 1960s by a philosopher and scientist, as a way of harnessing computers to better connect human knowledge. These men were partly inspired by an essay written in the the 1940s called “As We May Think“, where the chief scientist of the United States stated his vision whereby all knowledge could be stored on neatly categorised microfirm (the information storage technology at the time), and in moments, any knowledge could be retrieved. Several decades of experimentation in hypertext occurred, and finally a renegade scientist created the World Wide Web. He broke some of the conventions of what the ideal hypertext system would look like, and created a functional system that solved his problem. That being, connecting all these distributed scientists around the world and their knowledge.
So as it is clearly evident, computers have been used as a way of storing and manipulating information. The Internet was invented to connect computing systems around the world; and the Web did the same thing for the people who used this network. Two parallel innovative technologies (Internet and hypertext) used a common modern marvel (the computer) to connect the communication and information sharing abilities of machines and humans alike. With machines and the information they process, it’s called interoperability. With humans, it’s called being connected.
But before we move on, it’s worth noting that the inventor of the Web has now spent a decade advocating for his complete vision: a semantic web. What’s that? Well if we consider the Web as the sum of human knowledge accessible by humans, the Semantic Web is about allowing computers to be able to understand what the humans are reading. Not quite a Terminator scenario, but so computers can become even more useful for humans (as currently, computers are completely dependent on humans for interpretation).
What aspects of the trend haven’t happened yet?
Borders have been broken down that previously restrained us. The Internet and Hyptertext are enabling connectivity with humans and interoperability for computer systems that store information. Computers in turn, are enabling humans to process tasks that could not be done before. If the longer term trend is connecting and bridging systems, then the demon to be demolished are the borders that create division.
So with that in mind, we can now ask another question: “what borders exist that need to be broken down?” What it all comes down to is “access”. Or more specifically, access to data, access to connectivity, and access to computing. Which brings us back to the word ubiquity: we now need to strive to bridge the gap in those three domains and make them omnipresent. Information accessible from anywhere, by anyone.
Let’s now look at this in a bit more detail
- Ubiquitous data: We need a world where data can travel without borders. We need to unlock all the data in our world, and have it accessible by all where possible. Connecting data is how we create information: the more data at our hands, the more information we can generate. Data needs to break free – detached from the published form and atomised for reuse.
- Ubiquitous connectivity: If the Internet is a global network that connects the world, we need to ensure we can connect to that network irregardless of where we are. The value of our interconnected world can only achieve its optimum if we can connect wherever with whatever. At home on your laptop, at work on your desktop, on the streets with your mobile phone. No matter where you are, you should be able to connect to the Internet.
- Ubiquitous computing: Computers need to become a direct tool available for our mind to use. They need to become an extension of ourselves, as a “sixth sense”. The border that prevents this, is the non-assimilation of computing into our lives (and bodies!). Information processing needs to become thoroughly integrated into everyday objects and activities.
Examples of when we have ubiquity
My good friend Andrew Aho over the weekend showed me something that he bought at the local office supplies shop. It was a special pen that, well, did everything.
- He wrote something on paper, and then through his USB, could transfer an exact replica to his computer in his original handwriting.
- He could perform a search on his computer to find a word in his digitised handwritten notes
- He was able to pass the pen over a pre-written bit of text, and it would replay the sounds in the room when he wrote that word (as in the position on the paper, not the time sequence)
- Passing the pen over the word also allowed it to be translated into several other languages
- He could punch out a query with the drawn out calculator, to compute a function
- and a lot more. The company has now created an open API on top of its platform – meaning anyone can now create additional features that build on this technology. It has the equivalent opportunity to when the Web was created as a platform, and anyone was allowed to build on top of it.
The pen wasn’t all that bulky, and it did this simply by having a camera attached, a microphone and special dotted paper that allowed the pen to recognise its position. Imagine if this pen could connect to the Internet, with access to any data, and the cloud computing resources for more advanced queries?
Now watch this TED video to the end, which shows the power when we allow computers to be our sixth sense. Let your imagination run wild as you watch it – and while it does, just think about ubiquitous data, connectivity, and computation which are the pillars for such a future.
Trends right now enabling ubiquity
So from the 10,000 feet view that I’ve just shown you, let’s now zoom down and look at trends occurring right now. Trends that are heading towards this ever growing force towards ubiquity.
From the data standpoint, and where I believe this next wave of innovation will centre on, we need to see two things: Syntactic Interoperability and Semantic Interoperability. Syntactic interoperability is when two or more systems can communicate with each other – so for example, having Facebook being able to communicate with MySpace (say, with people sending messages to each other). Semantic interoperability is the ability to automatically interpret the information exchanged meaningingfully – so when I Google Paris Hilton, the search engine understands that I want a hotel in a city in Europe, not a celebrity.
The Semantic Web and Linked Data is one key trend that is enabling this. It’s interlinking all the information out there, in a way that makes it accessible for humans and machines alike to reuse. Data portability is similarly another trend (of which I try to focus my efforts), where the industry is fast moving to enable us to move our identities, media and other meta data wherever we want to.
…the whole point of working on open building blocks for the social web is much bigger than just creating more social networks: our challenge is to build technologies that enhance the network and serve people so that they in turn can go and contribute to building better and richer societies…I can think of few other endeavors that might result in more lasting and widespread benefits than making the raw materials of human connection and knowledge sharing a basic and fundamental property of the web.
The DiSo Project that Chris leads is an umbrella effort that is spearheading a series of technologies, that will lay the infrastructure for when social networking will become “like air“, as Charlene Li has been saying for the last two years.
One of the most popular open source pieces of software (Drupal) has now for a while been innovating on the data side rather than on other features. More recently, we’ve seen Google announce it will cater better for websites that markup in more structured formats, giving an economic incentive for people to participate in the Semantic Web. API‘s (ways for external entities to access a website’s data and technology) are now flourishing, and are providing a new basis for companies to innovate and allow mashups (like newspapers).
As for computing and connectivity, these are more hardware issues, which will see innovation at a different pace and scale to the data domain. Cloud computing has long been understood as a long term shift, and which aligns with the move to ubiquitous computing. Theoretically, all you will need is an Internet connection, and with the cloud, be able to have computing resources at your disposal.
On the connectivity side, we are seeing governments around the world make broadband access a top priority (like the Australian governments recent proposal to create a national broadband network unlike anything else in the world). The more evident trend in this area however, will be the mobile phone – which since the iPhone, has completely transformed our perception of what we can done with this portable computing device. The mobile phone, when connected to the cloud carrying all that data, unleashes the power that is ubiquity.
Along this journey, we are going to see some unintended impacts, like how we are currently seeing social media replacing the need for a mass media. Spin-off trends will occur which any reasonable person will not be able to predict, and externalities (both positive and negative) will emerge as we drive towards this longer term trend of everything and everyone being connected. (The latest, for example, being the real time web and the social distribution network powering it).
It’s going to challenge conventions in our society and the way we go about our lives – and that’s something that we can’t predict but just expect. For now, however, the trend is pointing to how do we get ubiquity. Once we reach that, then we can ask the question of what happens after it – that being: what happens when everything is connected. But until then, we’ve got to work out on how do we get everything connected in the first place.
Open standards matter, but so does the water; and just like water is not what creates a Mona Lisa or a Hoover Dam alone, so too do open standards not really matter that much to what we are trying to do with the DataPortability Project in the longer term. But they matter for the industry, which is why we advocate for them. Here’s why.
Bill Washburn is one of the soft-spoken individuals that has driven a lot of change, like leading the charge to open government technology (the Internet as we know it) to the rest of the world. He’s been around long enough to see trends, so I asked him: why does open always win? What is it about the walled garden that makes it only temporary?
Bill gave me two reasons: technologies need to be easy to implement and they also need to be cheap. It may sound obvious, but below I offer my interpretation why in the context of standards
1) Easy to implement
If you are a developer constantly implementing a standard, you want the easiest one to implement. Having to learn a new standard each time you need to do something is a burden – you want to learn how to do something once and that’s it. And if there is a choice to implement two standards that do the same thing, guess which one will win?
That’s why you will see the technically inferior RSS dominate over ATOM. Both allow syndication and give the end-user the same experience, but for a developer trying to parse it, ATOM is an absolute pain in the buttocks. Compare also JSON and XML – the former being a data structure that’s not even really a standard, and the latter which is one of the older data format standards on Internet. JSON wins out for using asynchronous technologies in the web2.0 world, because it’s just easier to do. Grassroots driven micro-formats and W3C endorsed RDF? Same deal. RDF academically is brilliant – but academic isn’t real world.
2) Cheap to implement
This is fairly obvious – imagine if you had two ways of performing something that did the same thing, but one was free and the other had licensing costs – what do you think a developer or company will use? Companies don’t want to pay licensing fees, especially for non-core activities; and developers can’t afford license fees for a new technology. Entities will bias their choices to the cheaper of the two, like free.
I think an interesting observation can be made about developer communities. Look at people that are the .Net community, compared to say something like Python advocates. You tend to find Python people are more open to collaboration, meetups, and other idea exchanges rather than the .Net developers who keep to themselves (a proprietary language). With the Microsoft owned .Net suite requiring a lot more costs to implement, it actually holds back the adoption of the technology to dominate the market. If people aren’t collaborating as much when compared to rival technologies, that means less innovation, more costs to learning – a longer term barrier to market adoption.
The most important point to make is on the actual companies that push these standards. Let’s say you are Facebook pushing your own standard, which although free, could only be modified by and adapted by the Facebook team. That’s going to cost resources – at the very least, a developer overseeing it. Maybe a team of evangelists to promote your way of thinking; a supervisor to manage this team. If you are the sole organisation in charge of something, it’s going to cost you (not anyone else) a lot of money.
Compare that to an open community effort, where lots of companies and people pool their resources. Instead of one entity bearing the cost, it’s hundreds of entities bearing the cost. On a singular basis, it’s actually cheaper to create a community driven standard. And honestly, when you think about it, why a company fights over what standard gets implemented has nothing to do with their core strategic objectives. Sure they might get some marketing out of it (as the Wikipedia page says “this company created this standard”), but realistically, it’s rewarding more the individuals within these companies who can now put on their resume “I created this technology that everyone is using now”.
Why Open wins
In the short run, open doesn’t win because it’s a longer process, that in part relies on an industry reacting to a proprietary approach. In the long run, Internet history has proven that the above two factors always come to dominate. Why? Because infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain, and usually, it’s better to pool our efforts to build that infrastructure. You don’t want to spend your money on something that’s for the public benefit, only to have no one in the public using it – do you, Mr Corporate Vice-President?
For years, people who have bothered to think, have known the newspaper industry was going on a downward spiral. But now that everyone is fretting that this industry is collapsing due to sudden events, it’s time people joined the thinkers about the future of the newspaper industry because there is hope. Having spent a few days with the Wall Street Journals iPhone app, I think I see a light in the tunnel for them.
I don’t read newspapers for a simple reason: I don’t have the time to. During the day, I’m out at client sites under the pump that I barely even read the online news. After hours, I am either out or working on one of the many projects I am involved in. I might be only in my twenties and still early in my career, but my workaholism has made me busier than you think. Did you hear that newspaper exec who’s spent a decade worrying how you’d catch my generation?
Which is why the iPhone is a God-send for me. My attention is limited, and information creators need to work on my schedule if they expect me to consume – hence why the WSJ app that was released a few days ago, hits the spot for me. I am able to read the news and my emails on the go, whenever I have down time (like catching a train to work).
Just look at the screen shots. You’ll notice it’s easy for me to scan the news -like a newspaper. It allows me to mark and share the news, which is a feature that draws me to using it. In fact, it’s just plain enjoyable reading the news – the same sense of enjoyment you get from putting your feet up and reading the weekend broadsheet. Newspapers are an experience, and this application is the first time I’ve felt a digital newspaper experience reawaken that feeling.
But forget about me for a bit, because that’s not why the application has nailed it. Have another look at the screenshots, and tell me who is the #1 business software company?
As you may have heard me before, I believe advertising is a bubble economy. It’s going down, down, down – and that is the real problem with the newspaper industry, which has relied on it as it’s revenue model. However, just because I think it’s a bubble, doesn’t mean I think all advertising is dead – just some types.
The reason why advertising is not really working on the Internet, is because the traditional media relied on the assumption their audience was captured (on the Internet, they’re not). When an ad plays on the TV or the radio, there is little you can do but put up with it. Most people change the channel, but no one could prove that. Unlike the Internet, where people genuinely can ignore ads (either through banner blindness or block-out technologies)…and which can be proven because online advertising is more measureable.
The thing about mobile and why it’s so promising, is because the audience is once again captured. Because the screen real estate is so precious, any advertising that gets shown, is genuinely noticed by the consumer. The phone user has less control on manipulating their viewing experience, which they do on a desktop computer.
I actually clicked on that Oracle ad three times, which is amazing considering I rarely click on ads. The first time was because I genuinely was interested to see what was behind the link. But the other two times were because my tapping on the screen to read an article was mistaken thanks to my fat fingers. It might have been accidental, but as far as Oracle and the WSJ is concerned – I’ve just shown them engagement. And even if I don’t want to follow through on the ad, I sure as hell noticed it.